Sonic Youth Confusion Is Sex

Reconsidering Sonic Youth’s ‘Confusion Is Sex’ at 40 Years Old

Sonic Youth’s Confusion Is Sex is impressively raw and uncompromising, thrilling and terrifying as a walk through the Lower East Side in the early 1980s.

Confusion Is Sex
Sonic Youth

With its klaxon, air-raid guitars; pounding primitivist percussion; and blank-eyed vocals delivering lyrics about prostitutes, drug addicts, and excoriation of the American Dream, Sonic Youth‘s first proper full-length is like some deranged mashup of Taxi Driver and The Warriors. New York City in 1983 was a heady mix of fear and freedom, which are beautifully, terrifyingly captured in Sonic Youth’s follow-up to their self-titled debut.

Confusion Is Sex is Sonic Youth at their rawest and most uncompromising, also serving as a snapshot of a splintering punk underground of the time. Many former bleakniks were retreating into pop escapism, a la Talking HeadsSpeaking in Tongues, while others embraced a new twee innocence and earnestness, like on Daniel Johnston‘s Hi, How Are You? or the Violent Femmes‘ debut Violent Femmes. Still others drew back from punk’s relentless, all-consuming avant-garde, retreating into the Flower Power Sunshine Daydream and buying into classic rock’s self-mythologizing, now critically defanged and used to hock poisonous nostalgic fantasies, with the rise of blandly inoffensive college rock and jangle pop. 

In this landscape, Confusion Is Sex sounds mean, lean, demented, and damaged in a beautifully artsy way, thrilling and terrifying in a way few records have captured before or since. 

In the early months of 1983, the core trio of Sonic Youth – Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, and Lee Ranaldo – joined by one of the quick succession of drummers in their early years, Jim Sclavunos from Teenage Jesus & The Jerks and 8-Eyed Spy filed into the studio to record what would become their first proper full-length. The band – recently road-hardened from their Savage Blunder tour with the Swans, where they’d been packed ten deep into the back of a windowless van – filed into Fun City, a concrete basement recording studio on 22nd Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue, where he acted as superintendent as a day gig. Years later, Tiers would later end up losing that superintendent gig when Gordon, along with Pussy Galore’s Julie Calfriz, let the cat out of the bag about him turning off the building’s boiler in search of a clean vocal take. 

Sonic Youth sought out Tiers because he had previously carved out a similar brand of avant-pop with Theoretical Girls, along with Glenn Branca, and his ability to produce a single on the cheap. He told Ranaldo he could record and print a run of 1,000 singles for $400. The first fruits of the recording session, “Confusion Is Sex”, was so promising their label, Neutral Records (owned by Branca), pushed the band to record a full-length, despite the company experiencing financial difficulties. 

These difficulties forced Sonic Youth to get creative to secure financing. They found their final backers in the unlikely couple of Nicolas Ceresole and his girlfriend, Catherine Bachmann, a pair of European bohemians descended from money. Ceresole ended up wiring his Danish father – who owned a beer company – for funds, claiming it was for dental work. Funds secured, Sonic Youth were free to experiment and explore with a complete sense of liberation in a way they had only dreamed of on their self-titled EP.

When Sonic Youth re-entered Fun City’s concrete bunker, they brought their new sound engineer, John Erskine, to helm the sessions. Initially reluctant, Erskine thought the studio’s crude facilities incapable of producing a decent-sounding record. With no voiceover system in place, Erskine had to shout “Tape rolling!” around the corner, which can be heard at the beginning of the ominous “(She’s in A) Bad Mood”. Guitar amps had to be covered in blankets to prevent tracks from bleeding into one another. The monitoring system was rough and inadequate, giving little real idea of what the final mixes would sound like, causing the group to go overboard on the low end. When they got back a test pressing of the vinyl, the bass was so fierce the needle wouldn’t stay in the record’s groove. 

Sonic Youth
Photo: Sonic Youth Archive via Bandcamp

Despite this, both Erskine and the band were impressed with the recordings and energized by the sonic freedom possible at Fun City. This freedom allowed them to get creative and experiment, finding new and innovative ways to mangle and wreck their recordings and transforming their grungy New York City surroundings into an instrument. It’s heady stuff – simultaneously rapturous and chilling – in a way few mainstream records have managed to pull off.

Confusion Is Sex captures details particular to that time and place while introducing some aspects that would become signature sounds for decades to come. First is the influence of their peers. “The World Looks Red” features a lyric written by Swans’ Michael Gira, evoking a sense of misanthropy and paranoia rarely seen in Sonic Youth’s catalog. 

Lydia Lunch looms even larger, and not just with the loan of her drummer. She’s the “she” in the album’s opening track, “(She’s in A) Bad Mood”, with its nightmarish, nerve-shredding guitars and lyric detailing Lunch’s damaged kewpie doll schtick. Lunch informs Confusion Is Sex‘s next track, too, “Protect Me You”, with a cold, deadpan singsong vocal from Gordon being one of the first examples of her harrowing mixture of sunny West Coast youthfulness and pure, blackened bad vibes she would come to perfect (sometimes in collaboration with Lydia Lunch, as with the perfection that is “Death Valley ’69.”)

The mixture of arty conceptualism, rock ‘n roll’s libidinal current, and punk rock primitivism that made Sonic Youth stand out, and stay ahead of their peers for decades, are already on display on Confusion Is Sex. As Sclavunos put it, “Sonic Youth didn’t have to apologize for being arty and didn’t have to wear their art on their sleeve, either. They could function as a rock group but also had more highfalutin ideas than your average rock band.

The title track and lead single, “Confusion Is Sex”, is a fine example of the alchemical blend of “high” and “low” culture, featuring a shouty, hardcore anthemic vocal extolling the virtues of chaos over a klanging tintinnabulation of atonal guitar, inspired by Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, which Moore was obsessing over at the time.

A similar blend of gritty realism and high concept can be heard on “Making the Nature Scene”, another Gordon vocal, capturing the mean streets of New York in 1983 as well as Italian architect and designer Aldo Rossi, who believed that cities never surpass their histories, which hold on like ghosts. “Making the Nature Scene’s” depictions of sex workers huddling around trashcan bonfires, gilded legs sparkling in gold tights, leg warmers, and stilettos feels as distant and ancient as Caesar’s Rome in 2023. Even so, Rossi would have us believe those working girls’ specters still haunt the bones of the Lower East Side, hiding in dark alleys away from the antiseptic 5-over-1s.

The connection between using primal, libidinal energies and ascending to higher states is made even more explicit in a short film by Dan Graham, one of Gordon’s mentors and artistic inspiration. Rock My Religion draws connections between the energy of punk rock concerts to the Shakers, a group of religious extremists who combined a monastic renunciation with explosions of violent trembling and shaking. Rock My Religion featured a live clip of Sonic Youth performing “Shaking Hell”, perhaps Confusion Is Sex‘s most pivotal and essential moment.

“Shaking Hell” explores the male gaze and the exploitation of women’s bodies and images for profit. It transforms the directives of male photographers and art directors into surreal, nightmarish tableaus, threatening to “take off her dress” and “shake off her flesh” like the woman is some a Joel Peter Witkin sculpture. It’s an eerie reminder that women’s bodies are the bones that prop up consumerism and keep it dancing its grotesque jig, with Gordon repeating “Shake” ten times in a row like she’s hypnotized. 

Gordon talks at length about “Shaking Hell” and its importance in discovering her voice as a musician, an artist, and a feminist in her biography Girl in a Band. “On a more personal level, “Shaking Hell” mirrors my struggle with my own identity and the anger I felt at who I was. Every woman knows what I’m talking about when I say girls grow up with a desire to please, to cede their power to other people. At the same time, everyone knows about the sometimes aggressive and manipulative ways men often exert power in the world and how by using the word empowered to describe women, men are simply maintaining their own power and control. Years after I’d left L.A., I could still hear my crazy brother’s voice in my ear, whispering, ‘I’m going to tell all your friends that you cried.’

“Back then, and even now, I wonder: ‘Am I “empowered”? If you have to hide your hypersensitivity, are you really a “strong woman”? Sometimes another voice enters my head, shooing these thoughts aside. This one tells me that the only really good performance is one where you make yourself vulnerable while pushing beyond your familiar comfort zone. I liken it to having an intense, hyper-real dream where you step off a cliff but don’t fall to your death.”

Confusion Is Sex captures and expresses so many of Sonic Youth’s obsessions and artistic tendencies in a particularly pure and primordial state – the explosive energy of rock ‘n roll; the hedonistic, analgesic power of pop culture; feminist investigations and deconstructions, and extreme dissonance that still isn’t afraid of accessibility. 

Although Confusion Is Sex is mostly viewed favorably in the rearview mirror of history, people haven’t always gotten it. Robert Christgau, that smug bastion of Boomer tastes, was somewhat pithily dismissive of the album at the time, dryly commenting on their cover of “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, “The dull rock critic wants to mention that the cover doesn’t rock too good.” 

This dismissal from the “Dean of Rock Criticism” apparently hit a nerve as he got a namecheck on the album’s follow-up, Kill Yr Idols (with which Confusion Is Sex is regularly packaged), with Moore whining: “I don’t know why / You wanna impress Christgau / Ah, let that shit die / And find out the new goal.”

Others were more sympathetic to what Sonic Youth were going for, with Trouser Press writing, “confusion reigns and happily so. This album sprays out slivers of ringing, reeling, screaming six-string debris, much of it produced with drumsticks and weird tunings. Partaking of Branca’s dissonance, Flipper’s anarchy and PIL’s desperation, these Lower East Side arties capture the violence and hope of their neighborhood. If these sounds hit like an aural root canal, that’s just what the doctor ordered.”

Confusion Is Sex is far from Sonic Youth’s best record, nor is it necessarily the best place to start if you’re new to the band. It is impressively pure, though, raw and uncompromising, thrilling and terrifying as a sketchy rollercoaster or a walk through the Lower East Side in the early 1980s. They’d never again be so close to their No Wave roots or the avant-garde art underground from which they sprang, leaning further and further into the noise-pop sunshine as the years ticked on until their eventual, tragic implosion nearly 30 years later. It remains a distinctive document of a particular moment from a singular band.